Monday, August 19, 2013

Knowsley Housing Trust and Liverpool Echo in Bedroom Tax Scare Story

The 'ring of steel' which scared Mersey housing associations
When local anti-bedroom tax activists hastily formed a 'ring of steel' around an evicted woman's Knowsley home and faced down bailiffs at the end of last month, the story gained nationwide attention, and many solidarity messages from around the country. It seems this rattled Knowsley Housing Trust (KHT), who have co-operated with the Liverpool Echo to produce a scare story aimed at generating sympathy for the housing association, and hostility for activists.

The article was originally headlined "Uniform Could Attract Attacks" - a ridiculous suggestion as a KHT uniform is just some items of clothing. The only hostility could potentially come from working class people who link the housing association with the social crime of evicting tenants due to bedroom tax and other arrears.

However, no group affiliated with the Merseyside Federation of Anti-Bedroom Tax Groups has committed any act of violence or verbal intimidation against employees of housing associations, and neither have they advised others to do so. Every action taken by local groups on their own or acting within the Federation has been entirely non-violent. There's certainly been lots of noise from people collectively unafraid of expressing their own interests, but no threats whatsoever have been made.

Even as KHT invent and then seek to cure this 'threat' with their advice to staff not to wear uniforms in public, they are forced to admit that none have been targeted so far. As their statement in the Echo concedes, "It is not a reflection of protesters in the region, in fact our experience is that protests have been peaceful and campaigners have been willing to engage with us – which we have actively encouraged."

Still, the Echo's article seeks to play up the 'threat', falsely linking it to "fear of attacks by anti-bedroom tax campaigners" [emphasis added]. The replacement headline "Housing staff told to beware of attacks by anti-bedroom tax campaigners" compounds the same error. Whether the Echo are merely sensationalising the story to grab a few more readers or are playing into a more sinister agenda is unclear at this stage.

This is not a game. People are losing homes and places in communities where they have sometimes lived for generations. In some cases, people are being driven to suicide by measures which KHT and other 'social landlords' are fully complicit in. When someone paid by a housing association puts eviction paperwork through, they are tragically taking part in that social crime against their own class.

But by pressing for evictions, it is the housing association bosses who are spearheading all the attacking, and they already have blood on their hands. To then point a crimson-stained finger at working class people who oppose them is the height of hypocrisy.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Liverpool 'Pilgrimage' Highlights ATOS Crimes

The 'shrine', before being taken into police custody
This morning, a group of around fifty Merseyside activists gathered outside Liverpool's ATOS testing centre, as part of a 'pilgrimage' called by Merseyside People's Assembly to see the 'miracle workers'. While there was a light-hearted and even cheerful feel to proceedings, it highlighted an extremely serious issue. Fighting it will have to wait for another day.

The Facebook callout stated that:
"Sick and disabled people are called in to ATOS and a large proportion are 'cured'. There is apparently no need to travel to Lourdes these days in search of a miracle cure, there is a 'healing' site on our doorstep! We will congregate outside the miracle site at 11.00am, the more 'nuns' and 'priests' the better."
The event was in stark contrast to recent demos in Liverpool, which have often had a dismal atmosphere, with activists apparently having no clue of what to do. The humorous aspect had the effect of bringing out relatively large numbers, and a different side to people to that normally on show at political gatherings.

Demonstrators came dressed as biblical characters, priests, nuns, and bishops. 'Holy ATOS water' was thrown around. Anti-ATOS songs were sung. The local media came and took photos.

After a couple of hours, a G4S security guard at the testing centre complained about a toy Smurf being placed on a 'shrine', and threatened to call the police unless the items were removed. A while after this, when much of the crowd had dispersed, the cops did indeed come, and the Smurf was taken into police custody.

The day was a success on its own terms, and very enjoyable, but no amount of negative publicity for ATOS will end the crime of sick and disabled people being forced onto dole queues to compete for jobs that do not exist. Only direct action by a broad movement can achieve that.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The New Working Class Movement (Introduction)

Almost a year ago, noting a general lull in mass resistance, I wrote an article asking "Why Isn't There A Working Class Movement In The UK?". In that piece I tried to identify various barriers to us building such a movement, despite the massive need for it. I finished by saying:
"Amidst the bankers' crisis, things will continue to get worse for our class in the UK, in Greece, Egypt, South Africa and around the planet. Working class people will increasingly feel they have little to lose from fighting, and everything to gain. Despite the machinations of the union hierarchies and fake left parties, a new working class movement must come, and sooner rather than later. What should it look like? Well that's a subject for another time..." 
That time has come. In the intervening period I've been playing my part in what looks like becoming the first major stand against 'austerity Britain' - the fight against the bedroom tax. That battle is now reaching a critical stage, and I think it sheds some light on the potential for mass struggle not seen since pre-war times. The first part of this series will look at that mini-movement, and will attempt to situate it within broader trends of resistance.

Following that, I will examine: workplace organisation, how we can beat the cuts locally and nationally, the importance of intersectionality to class struggle, the place of the British working class in the world struggle, creating a new world, full socialism, and full communism.

I'm not some prophet or anything, I'm mostly doing this to sort my own thoughts out, so please let me know what you reckon to what I have to say, and hopefully together we can develop some new theories/revolutionary praxis.

Community Organisation
Workplace Organisation
Beating The Cuts

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Merseyside Bedroom Tax Federation: After The Storm

Despite Federal tensions, neighbourhood resistance has continued to grow
During the spring, the Merseyside Federation of Anti-Bedroom Tax Groups was formed, following weeks of frenzied activity. Neighbourhood-based groups from all across the region sent delegates to meetings in Liverpool town centre, and amidst a buzz of excitement, an anti-oppression motion was unanimously agreed.

But the trouble began when it became clear that one local anti-bedroom tax group - based in Knowsley - had strong links to notorious local fascists. Knowsley sought to join the Federation, and anti-fascists tried to raise the alarm. But at the next Federation meeting, the Knowsley application was steamrollered through by the chair, who refused to allow antifascists permission to air their concerns. The next moment I received a tweet from a jubilant Knowsley admin, threatening to take me to court for my "lies" (I'm yet to hear anything further, by the way). Following this, the Federation Twitter account published statements attacking "the anarchists", aimed at covering up the chair's undemocratic actions.

At a special meeting called to look into whether "the Federation [had] been brought into disrepute", Knowsley's affiliation application was withdrawn, and no-one from that group has attended any further meetings. In the meantime, local groups have continued doing some excellent work, but the issue of what happened at the 1st June meeting has been the elephant in the room at a federal level.

Yesterday, over a tense and very emotional hour and a half, delegates had it out. This was prompted by a motion from one of the local groups, which called for "The activists who have made public statements attacking the Federation" (a reference to those who had called-out the behaviour of individuals within the Federation) to "withdraw them". Further, "all groups agree not to make public statements attacking the Federation or members of the Federation", and later on, "concerns or disagreements to be put in writing and discussed at a full Federation meeting and to agree with the democratic decision at that meeting".

There was lots of back and forth about the merits or otherwise of what antifascists had written in their whistleblowing blog posts, but when one speaker described the motion as "top down", and another characterised it as "policing" what individuals are doing when "we're not the state", it was agreed to amend the resolution to the following:

"The Federation is to unite in practise whenever possible and assist all groups to become bigger and stronger in fighting the bedroom tax and cuts in welfare benefit.

"To agree to a Code of Conduct. Differences should be respected, and all members have a right to express their positions and discuss in a frank, open and respectful way.

"Members should not make personal attacks. The Chairperson to pull members to order when personal attacks are made and if the person persists they be asked to leave the meeting."

The amendment was backed by a majority of three, out of eleven voting delegates. While such a margin shows there are still tensions and suspicions within the group, there was a sense that the air has been cleared somewhat, and hopes that the Federation will be able to put the infighting behind us, so we can get on with the urgent work of challenging the bedroom tax. With fascists unable to spread their divisive poison anywhere near affiliated groups, we can proceed with some confidence.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Liverpool Bin Collectors Work To Rule as Contractor Prepares Scabs

The rubbish is starting to pile up in Liverpool, as refuse collectors work to rule in a dispute over a pay claim. Meanwhile, there are strong hints that the Amey contractor is planning to get scab labour in from its South Ribble employees.

Collections of household waste and recycling are currently estimated to be a day and a half behind schedule, something which in of itself proves that refuse workers are worth far more than their 3% pay claim. 'Working to rule' is the industrial tactic where employees follow the terms of their contracts to the letter - doing no more than the minimum set out. When workers do this, it demonstrates how much extra and unpaid work is part of the 'everyday'.

In the case of the Liverpool refuse workers, a leaked council email reports that they are:

"... leaving the depot later, only putting one bin at a time on the wagon and returning to depot for lunch and finishing at 2.30pm [...] They are working their way through the rounds, picking up from where they left off the previous day. By start of play Friday there was 13% of Wednesday’s work and 91% of Thursday’s work outstanding."

If the Liverpool refuse workers have got a day and a half behind in just over a week by working to rule, it shows that they do a huge amount of work over and above their contractual responsibities every single day, and a huge pay rise would be needed to reflect this! What's more, many areas of Liverpool are not supplied with wheelie bins, which means workers must deal with them directly, despite the health risks.

Amey refused to confirm suspicions that it was hiring scab labour to try and break the Liverpool workers, but admitted it was registering extra vehicles with the Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority, which could be used by scabs. Clearly precisely this disgusting act - or the threat of it - is the company's intention.

GMB convenor Graham Smith told the Liverpool Echo that he's doing all he can to avoid strike action: "At this stage we have not stepped it up. We are just trying to get the company to talk." On the prospect of scab-hiring, he gave another timid answer, declaring that: "If they brought them in, I’m not saying straight away, but then the relationship between ourselves and the company would deteriorate."

Under the anti-trade union laws, the GMB and Unite unions would have to give Amey seven days' notice of intention to strike, and union leaders have refused to call a strike date so far, despite a unanimous mandate to do so on a large turnout. There is therefore a real danger that Amey will bring in scab labour, knowing it will be a full week before legal strike action can began. This would give them plenty of time to clear the backlog.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Why the Unions are Refusing to Name a General Strike Date

Has the workers' movement has "not recovered" from 1926 general strike?
The following is a repost from Living In The Real World:

Back in November last year, a resolution originating from the Prison Officers' Association was passed at the Trades Union Congress conference by a considerable majority. The motion called upon the TUC to consider the practicalities of a general strike. This gave the trade unions a massive mandate to take coordinated action against the government's austerity program. Why then has that not yet happened? Additionally, why is it unlikely to happen, at least via an official route?

The motion itself read:
"Congress welcomes the Future that Works demonstration on 20 October 2012 and recognises this as being an effective platform and foundation to resist the damaging austerity measures that are damaging the very fabric of our society in Great Britain.

"Further, Congress recognises that after the demonstration there needs to be a strong voice from all TUC affiliated unions to protect public and private sector workers, the unemployed, our children, the elderly and all those in our society who are vulnerable.

"Congress accepts that the trade union movement must continue leading from the front against this uncaring government with a coalition of resistance taking coordinated action where possible with far reaching campaigns including the consideration and practicalities of a general strike."
Since this motion passed there has been very little to suggest that consideration of any kind is taking place nor anything to suggest that official fightback of any kind is on the agenda. Therefore I was pretty surprised to see the topic of Unite response to this motion on July's Young Members Committee meeting agenda - nine months after the original motion was passed.

Before I can continue with this I need to make two points:

1> Whilst I aim to keep the content of this post purely factual, it is nonetheless from a semi-personal perspective, purely because I was at the meeting in person.

2> I want to note the reasons I am making this public. I accept this will upset people, some of whom I do believe are genuine in their intentions. However I feel I have a duty to inform those who are putting their hopes and faith in the official union structures to fight on their behalf, and whilst I accept this will burn bridges this post is not made out of spite, but from a hope to build something concrete.

The suggested response given for us to agree or amend, written by the Executive Committee of Unite can be read here.

At first glance it actually looks pretty good. They intend to make the potential general strike happen for explicitly political reasons, and at least say that people should not simply be told to await the return of a Labour government. But there are problems too.

I raised my concerns at the meeting, when we as the Young Members Committee were asked to approve the Unite response. I had many concerns, but the main points I initially raised were 'why has this taken so long?'

The answer was that with Brendan Barber still around when the motion had been carried, little was done to keep the issue on the agenda, and then that Unite had been discussing and waiting for responses from other unions. That while PCS are taking lots of action themselves, there was little consensus for combined action. I was told that this then leaves Unite as "lone wolves".

I also questioned why there was seemingly no need to set a date yet. Given that we are now nine months on, and that it was clear that one general strike on its own is unlikely to change anything in terms of stopping the cuts. I pointed out that Greece has had eighteen plus general strikes with no sign of austerity being abandoned. I said that given the long term plan outlined in our response this is very unlikely to give any hope to those bearing the brunt of the cuts and so the very least we can do if we are even discussing this is to call a date and see who is with us.

The response (from the chair) being that it would be suicidal to set a date now. That we have not yet recovered as a movement from the last general strike (the one in 1926 where the TUC sold us out?),
that with there not being consensus amongst officers that Unite would potentially split in two, and that to suggest we name a date is "absolutely nuts".

They then voted to pass the response, with an additional suggestion that Unite at all times put pressure on the TUC to act on this - a seemingly meaningless statement.

The problem with this response is that when taking into account the proposed actions, these suggestions seem little more than an attempt to harness public opinion and anger. Both the anger of union membership - which is largely to the left of the leadership itself - and also the of "the communities" whose anger Unite has claimed to understand needs to play a role in any serious fightback regardless of employment status, hence the community branch initiative. Harnessing this anger is not a bad thing, provided that it is then channeled into something constructive, not into false hope, and defused by delaying tactics.

In essence, when you cut through the rhetoric, Unite's response is saying that a general strike is something to potentially work towards, but that we should not yet set a date. It even states that:
"It is not about setting a date for such a strike now, nor about pitting the demand for a general strike against other initiatives. It is however about recognising that the steps taken to prepare for such mass action in and of themselves; and that undertaking them increases the range of options our movement has in resisting the government's rush to disaster, whether or not such strike action is ever eventually called"
I don't think this is about building confidence amongst the rank and file as point 14 suggests by "bringing opinion amongst our members to the point of supporting such action", over "a build-up period of several months". Members are not lacking confidence because of any uncertainty in what needs to be done. They are wary of wasting precious time and energy on dead ends which end in shitty compromises - exactly the kind of scenario these 'steps toward' are likely to lead to. Perhaps I am cynical, but it has taken nine months to get to a discussion at a tokenistic committee (this is despite hard work of committed activists but an explanation would distract from the point here). At this pace we are not likely to see any serious action until way after a general election anyway, regardless of the claim that we should not wait until then.

Point 8 I am also somewhat wary of - the idea that the general community will not understand the need for mass action. 'Middle England' may not. But the communities which Unite are currently paying lip service to (because community members do not have anywhere near the same benefits as employed members, and far less funds to campaign with) are way ahead of this in terms of being aware of what needs to be done on the ground in order to get change, however they do not fit into traditional union actions as clearly the unemployed cannot 'strike'. That doesn't mean that a general strike would lack support from the unemployed, nor that there couldn't be unemployed solidarity actions that are in a sense less restrained by law.

The legal concerns are obviously serious. On the individual level rather than institutional. Unite acknowledge that their membership is low in particular sectors, and that it may not have the power to protect workers against punitive action from employers. This is a material fact of the times though. I am certain that activists would do everything in their power - in and outside of union structures - to organise solidarity actions to support such employees, but it will come down to a choice for individuals to make.

Some won't, but some no doubt will be willing to take a stand now, because frankly union membership is not likely to improve unless unions are seen to be willing to fight. When the working classes first began to organise and act in their interests, individuals were picked off and suffered consequences, but this is also how advances were made. I'm not talking individual self sacrifice, but a collective stand with the knowledge that this poses individual risk. We are at such a low point in terms of industrial strength that actually such a stand is needed again.

This brings me to the law in the institutional sense. Britain is bound by the most severely restrictive anti-trade union laws in Europe. Laws which the last Labour government did nothing to reverse, and laws which serve to stifle any attempt at serious action which could threaten the current government, previous, future or if we are honest about who such governments represent - i.e. the capitalist class.

Part 10 of Unite's suggested response acknowledges the views of John Hendy QC, and Professor Keith Ewing that a general strike may well be legal under European human rights legislation - thus superceding British law, and suggest that we should publicise these opinions. However, noting to test this would likely take years of work suggests that they are not willing to try.

Again, it is worth remembering that every law in history that has been changed in favour of the working class has been changed by breaking the previous, unjust law.

Anti-union laws are there for a reason - a political one - to restrain the official structures of the working class. This in itself is not the fault of officials. However, by acting in fear of these laws, officials show that they will never challenge them.

The rest of the response goes on into some bizarre fantasy, going into great detail about what Unite would do should they go ahead with this action, despite having already heavily suggested that they are unlikely to. Detail such as an voluntary additional political levy which would serve as a sort of strike fund, replacing at least in part the wages of workers disciplined for the action that they are not going to be encouraged to take. Even if this were not fantasy, this is wrong when a substantial political levy is paid to a party who have shown time and time again that they are unwilling to even reverse the laws constraining such action, never mind do anything else in workers' interest.

The bizarre long winded plan of a "roadmap" is completely patronising; yet another attempt to divert energy into yet another useless symbolic action ending with a "carnival against the cuts".

People are dying. Lots. A "carnival" will not change that. Getting rid of this government and any other which seeks to serve the same interests will. A general strike organised from the bottom up, built on co-operation between workers rather than negotiation between committees of officials could make this happen. But only if we refuse to be diverted by dead ends.

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